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Preliminary Notes on an Early Election

I hope someone writes an honest book about media coverage of this election so I can finally understand what the hell’s been happening. There hasn’t been a good book by a Parliament Hill journalist in years, and all the latest political books have been stillborn, with minimal sales, but where there’s life, there’s hope.
First, I’d like to know how this election’s being covered. Not from the political aspect, but the actual physical action of reporting election stories.
Covid has to be a factor. Like most of the rest of us, journalists have been working from home for a year and a half. They’ve lived their lives online. They haven’t met sources, done in-person interviews, interacted with politicians and staffers at Parliament, legislatures, city halls, court houses and the rest of the places where most news comes from. That’s a challenge no journalists have faced, ever.
The big stories are happening without Canadian journalists on the scene. Afghanistan fell without a single Canadian journalist covering the Taliban advance and the evacuation. Canadian journalists are simply following up on news that’s being reported by the handful of journalists from Europe and the U.S. who are still on the ground.
The other big story – the one that people care about at a gut level – is Covid. This has been a summer of disappointment as slackers and selfish people, especially folks in rural areas and some airheaded young people in cities, refuse to be vaccinated. Through the pandemic, we’ve seen what happens when you downplay Covid. You just have to look at the U.S.
The complex story of Covid, the one that’s hard to get, is about the way it kills, and the people who have died. The Canadian journalists who understand virology could fit into a minivan. Their stories are complex. They deal with an issue that’s been politicized, in a country that failed to come together in a national crisis, and where politicians are trying to benefit from public anger and concern.
And now we have an election. There seems to be campaign planes with reporters on board, but the touring must be both stressful and creepy. Social distancing from just about everyone, weird campaigning at pandemic-shaped rallies, the anxiety carried by all of us including journalists, lack of interaction with real people – always a problem for reporters – would make this one of the most difficult campaigns to cover.
There are temptations for the lazy members of the political reporting profession to double down on their reliance on social media and polls. We are seeing the results on the National Newswatch page, where the stories are all about polls, as though individual national polls are (a) accurate, which they are not and (b) poll results are mirrored by the number of seats that the parties will win, which is, again, not true.
We are also seeing “gotcha! Journalism” ramping up. This has become worse over the years. Many journalists rate their work by the number of careers they have destroyed, which might be a good thing if all the people whose lives were ruined deserved it. Media make a big deal about people wrongly convicted by the courts. I would like to see the same concern about innocent people whose lives were destroyed by media feeding frenzy.
I went back on Twitter for the election. I’m seeing what I expected. Everyone is saying their candidates are getting a raw deal. Media friends would claim this is proof that the coverage is fair. But it might also be evidence that parties and candidates are, indeed, getting a shitty deal from journalists who will ignore hours upon hours of successful campaigning and do a story about a handful of hecklers.
There’s another awful trend: we have way too many opinionists and too few reporters in the field. Most journalists have no education to speak of, no grasp of institutions, law, culture, history, science, administration, business or much else. Very few have done anything other than work in urban offices, covering politicians and quoting people who are paid to talk to them. Almost all opinion journalism in Canada is trash written for media managers and owners, not for you.
Almost all of it is predictable pap that reinforces the views of the regular readers of these columns. They’re boring. They cost the papers almost nothing – some “freelancers” have really put the “free” in “freelance”, while staff columnists generate a predictable amount of copy with a budgetable cost. There are no stories that don’t pan out, no long assignments, few out-of-town expenses except at election time. There’s a word for it: filler.
Then there’s the strange situation of print media covering one party that says it will bail them out, and one that says it won’t. Strangely, the no-bailout party seems to be getting the most gentle coverage. I hope someone can explain why. Is it virtue-signaling by journalists who claim they can’t be bought? Or is there a deal where the Tories will come through with the bailout after all?
Journalism, at its best, is a truth-seeking exercise. The best reporters know they aren’t experts, but they keep experts on speed dial. They take the time to chase down facts and, most importantly, they play devil’s advocate on their own work.
Some media is fact-checking some of the claims of campaigning politicians. It would be a good idea for media to fact-check themselves, and to extend that to their colleagues. Journalists don’t let ordinary mortals get away with much, but they turn a blind eye on each other.